In traditional fitness circles, when coaches or trainers would instruct their clients on how to “stretch”, it was a static movement held over a long period of time. This focus was on increasing flexibility by lengthening muscles that might be short and tight. Today, especially in the Crossfit Community, there has been a break from the traditional 10 minutes of trying to grab your toes before or after a training session.
We hear the term “mobilization” used simultaneously or even in place of“stretching” or “flexibility”. A simple way to think about mobility vs. flexibility is active and passive range of motion. Passive range of motion (flexibility) is how far we can lengthen a muscle or move a joint with the help of an outside aid. Active range of motion (mobility) is the same ability to lengthen muscle or move joints, but by your own strength. For example, when I lie on my back and raise my leg up towards my head as far as possible, that represents active range of motion. If I add a band and pull my leg up even further, its no longer just my leg muscles lifting my leg, it’s also my biceps pulling on the band to help it get higher. This demonstrates passive range of motion.
The same concept goes for movements we see in workouts. If I can push myself into a good squat position by driving my elbows into my knees at the bottom, that means I have the flexibility to get there, but if I cannot get into the same position without the outside aid, my mobility is lacking. Since no one is a perfect mover, mobility is something we should constantly be working on. Don’t wait until a problem arises before you address it. Two options to help increase mobility are soft tissue work and joint mobilization.
First, within Crossfit gyms, SMR, or self-myofascial release, is the most common form of soft tissue work. Tools like lacrosse balls, massage sticks, voodoo floss, and foam rollers are traditionally used. SMR can be performed either before or after training sessions and provides temporary relief from soreness and improved range of motion. Its aim is to relax contracted muscles, improve blood circulation, and smooth out fascia surrounding the affected area.
Secondly, Kelly Starrett has demonstrated many techniques for joint mobilization on MobilityWod. You can find options often involving bands, to provide distraction at a given joint. The distraction pulls the joint into its correct place for optimal range of motion, so if we have an impingement or adhesion, we can correct and retrain. Mobility and mobilization are not to be confused with a warm-up. Mobility focuses mainly on improving the positions you will see in the workout therefore improving your output and performance. Warm-ups prepare the body for movement and the CNS to do work. In a Crossfit class, you might see mobility as a part of the warm-up, but should never replace it fully.
Lastly, if you are experiencing sharp shooting pain, sometimes individual mobility work isn’t enough! Seek out a chiropractor, massage therapist, or physical therapist who are trained to deal with issues outside of the scope of a fitness coach.